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Saturday, April 26, 2003

"Push Technology" Gone Wild

Ever drop by your favorite weblog only to be disappointed to find no new posts? Well, suffer no longer you lazy buffoon! You don't have to check your favorite weblogs every day, especially the ones that post on an irregular schedule.

Simply register freely at TrackEngine and be notified when your selected sites post new content. So give those Favorites a rest and make TrackEngine fetch the good stuff! I'm starting to use it for lots of sites, not just weblogs, so I can have the content "pushed" to me. There are other services like this, but several of them charge a fee. TrackEngine is free -- for now -- and it actually sends you the entire page you want tracked and highlights the changed portions!

All this wacky push technology reminds me of a song...

In the year 5555
Your arms are hanging limp at your sides
Your legs not nothing to do
Some machine is doing that for you


Ah, if only I could live that long. Arms are overrated anyhow...

Posted by Cory
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Friday, April 25, 2003

SARS Leaving Emotional Scars

A gas main explosion, caused by a late night backhoe miscalculation on a construction site, killed at least six at a strip mall in west end Toronto last night. So far, 19 have died of SARS, most of whom have contracted the virus in hospital settings. While SARS is clearly a public health issue, we're all feeling a bit misunderstood here in Pariah Town. Facts are being ignored. Standard and Poor's just downgraded the credit rating of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, citing SARS as a reason. Trips are being cancelled. Asian-owned businesses are seeing business drop 60% or worse.

My civic duty, therefore, has compelled me to deviate from the usual topic of this weblog to say: please come and visit us here in Toronto. The flowers are blooming, the air is clean, and you might even get a discount in one of our fine hotels. You're more likely to die in a gas main explosion or auto accident than you are to come down with a case of SARS.

Need I remind you of all of the great things Toronto has given to the world?

I guess I can actually muster up an Internet marketing angle to this story. A certain "Internet Marketing Conference" which shall remain nameless has a pop-up ad on its web site stating, in part:

"No SARS in Montreal - Travelers, please note: while several SARS cases have been reported in Toronto, as well as other major North American cities, there are no reported cases of SARS in Montreal."

Just when we needed a lifeline and a dose of compassion, our pals from the other end of Highway 401 give us an oar to the face. Probably just resentful that the feds have promised some SARS-economic-fallout-relief monies to Toronto, money which might have otherwise gone to buy votes from Montrealers. All kidding aside, though, that pop-up was a pretty cynical way of trying to sell a few conference registrations. If this is someone's idea of marketing, perhaps this is one marketing conference you don't need or want to attend.

Posted by Andrew
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Schmidt Talks (2)

The Google CEO muses about weblogs, evil, and free speech.

Posted by Andrew
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Thursday, April 24, 2003

"I'm Not Dead... Yet"

"Yes, you are. You'll be stone dead in a moment."

Such was the mentality of all kinds of Monty Python-esque business "analysts" who didn't -- and still don't -- grasp the absolutely revolutionary nature of the Internet. Sure, most of the over-funded/under-developed "Internet companies" bombed, but as J. William Gurley of News.com observes, it wasn't necessarily because their business models were bad, it's mostly because there was too much money available to too many companies, period, whether good or not.

Now that Amazon, eBay, Yahoo and Google are all the rage, we may just see the Internet come back stronger than ever; which is just what I knew would happen, even as deadbeats like Boo.com, Pets.com and marchFirst were dropping like flies. Doesn't it feel good?

We'll know that we're truly out of the woods if Philip Kaplan, the nincompoop behind F'd Company, who profited and reveled gleefully in the demise of many of the most innovative companies to ever be created, starts covering the resurgence of these companies he's mocked for so long.

Posted by Cory
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Schmidt Talks

This Always-On interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt (Part 1) is packed with so much insight, it's a must-read.

Posted by Andrew
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Overture Warns

In today's earnings call, Overture Services warned that while revenues would continue to be strong in 2003, profit would be significantly below expectations for the next few quarters. International expansion costs, acquisitions, and rising "traffic acquisition costs" (revenue shares to syndication partners like Yahoo) are to blame. Also being blamed is the slower-than-expected pace of increase in the average price per click.

This rough patch could be a blessing in disguise for Overture. It has been leaning too heavily on bidding wars and rising costs per click on a narrow band of keywords. Because of its inflexible keyword matching options, Overture monetizes a relatively small percentage of the overall keyword inventory. I've never been clear on the reasons behind Overture pursuing this type of strategy, or why they have been so slow in offering features like broad matching. But now's the time for action. Keyword advertisers want additional flexibility and control over the massive keyword inventory that is available.

Overture's warning is also said to anticipate potential losses of partnerships, but just because a company warns something might happen, doesn't mean it has happened or will happen. If Overture simultaneously broadens its keyword base and renews key partnerships, the warnings may turn out to have been overly conservative.

I'm sure you can dig up the relevant news accounts on your own. For fun though, have a look at this trader's comments on the Overture board at Yahoo Finance. The joie-de-vivre and admirable lack of partisanship ("Thank you God! I love America! I love G Bush and B Clinton"!) will surely take this individual a long way in his trading pursuits.

Posted by Andrew
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Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Google Finds Meaning

In a recent Traffick article, and a recent lengthy weblog posting, we praised Applied Semantics' CIRCA technology and suggested that it could fill a significant gap in Google's search technology, and also contribute to more accurate content-targeted advertising:
Today, Google acquired Applied Semantics.

Posted by Andrew
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Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Follow the Moving Target

AltaVista, too, has a new privacy policy, effective today. The philosophy appears to be: when a privacy policy becomes inconvenient, just rewrite it.

In other news, today I received a Yahoo! Direct email in my Yahoo! Mail box, even though I'd long ago opted out of that crapola and even though I'm shelling out an annual for a "premium" ad-laden, spam-friendly inbox. I went and looked at my "marketing preferences," and found that magically, my settings were set to "yes, please annoy the hell out of me" for all fourteen (count 'em) special offer categories. I know I didn't opt in to all this stuff. In fact, when I was unceremoniously opted into it initially, I immediately opted out again. Here we go again.

Not only that, but there are little checkboxes beside my home address and my home phone number that say "please don't contact me at this address" and "please don't phone me at this number." And they're (you guessed right).... unchecked! I wonder how that happened?

As long as this sort of thing continues, I really have to question the warm, fuzzy feelings I once had about Yahoo. Unfortunately, the alternatives don't look much better, and spartan interfaces like MyWay.com don't warm the soul.

Posted by Andrew
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Want to Win? Don't Compete

It's been nagging at me that there's something not quite right with the underlying message in "how to create a winning company" books such as Trout's Differentiate or Die or Godin's Purple Cow. They get it half right, but in a way, they fail to recognize the radical message behind their wise counsel.

Late last night on the local cable access channel, I caught a lecture by Alfie Kohn, an educational psychologist and author of numerous books including No Contest: The Case Against Competition, and a light came on. The perpetual need to careen from victory to victory is like an addictive drug for many in our society, and it's built into the way we're schooled. Many of the most powerful and wealthiest members of society feel the most inadequate. It's a vicious circle. But it's a cultural habit, not a fundamental characteristic of human nature. Given my early programming, it's not a habit I personally expect to break easily.

So anyway, it hit me that Godin's message in Purple Cow actually lays bare the oversimplifications of his previous book, Survival is Not Enough. In particular, he alludes to Darwinian imagery to prove various points about the need for companies to adapt to better "compete," or else die - "survival of the fittest," if you will. But as we now know, the "survival of the fittest" talk is more Spencerian (the late sociologist Herbert Spencer, who actually used the phrase) than Darwinian, and more ideologically loaded than scientific. Darwin was adamant that adaptation was a fundamental aspect of evolution, but didn't take a narrow view of what kinds of adaptations were best.

Trout's Differentiate or Die carries similar baggage with it. Yet the real point of the book, like Godin's latest, is that the best adaptations are those which rescue companies from the need to compete at all. The concept of differentiation in business shows us one kind of adaptation that leads to success. But our list of non-competitive forms of adaptation should go beyond differentiation: it should also extend to forms of cooperation. Obviously there are countless examples of businesses which succeed through "coopetition" - and they succeed not based merely on exchange relationships (I give you something, you give me something), but because this helps avoid the destructive impacts of unnecessary competition.

(Want more proof? Do a Google search on phrases like cooperation and rationality, robert axelrod, altruism and human nature, game theory, experimental economics, facial expressions, etc. The universities are full of interdisciplinary work on these matters.)

The overcrowded ranks of tenured scholars likely have special access to this type of insight. An Alfie Kohn can't rise above the din, necessarily, by going head to head against radical education theorists like Ivan Illitch and Bowles and Gintis. Instead, he creates a slightly different lexicon, a slightly different persona, and presto. An original. (It probably helps if your name is Alfie.) And tenure is no doubt a great way of shielding the less competitive, but still highly productive, members of learned society from the Glengarry-Glen-Ross-esque imperative to be a "top quintile producer." At a certain point, though, people in certain professions really do have to produce more, and win more often. Management has the prerogative to negotiate "win-win" partnerships, but rank and file salespeople must make their quotas. At a certain point, for certain people, ivory tower theories spawned from computer game theories and anthropological accounts of the communicative benefits of trustworthy facial expressions and gestures amongst gorillas break down.

In any case, the "business differentiation" theorists teach us important lessons - but what they don't teach us (in fact, quite the opposite) is that there is a perpetual need for good people and good companies to destroy one another for their own good and for the general good. Even Microsoft knows this. It doesn't kill all of its competitors. It cripples them, then takes an equity stake to give them a perch to ensure that they remain "cooperative." :)

So, if you're still clinging to that adolescent infatuation with Ayn Rand, move on. Keep it up, and you're likely to die broke and lonely.

Posted by Andrew
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Monday, April 21, 2003

Our friend the hyphen

Cam Balzer's defense of dashy domains left me sceptical at first. I didn't quite see his point, to be honest. But then I received a friendly email from someone at a company called Custom UK - or "customuk.com." Hard to deny that in situations where you're babbling gutturally and mangling company names, hyphens would probably come in handy. For the foreseeable future, in fact, long hyphenated domain names may be one of our only defenses against the capriciously-designed Internet naming system. What's more readable: weallandcullen.com, or weall-and-cullen.com? Yep, Cam's got a point. Without hyphens, you don't know where the words are.

Posted by Andrew
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Lycos Joins the Slippery-Slope-to-Spam Club

It was bad enough that I recently found myself on the receiving end of spammy special offers from Bell Mobility and Bell Canada, respectively, by dint of happening to have a mobile phone subscription and, well, a regular phone. "As a person with a, er, um, phone, we thought you'd be delighted to receive this email from the phone company about some stupid contest." Gaah. Thus the captains of Fortune 500 industry creep ever closer to the tactics employed by Nigerian conmen.

Lycos has now discovered a new technique. The two-year-delay-stealth-opt-out ploy.

Today I received a special offer from Quote.com (remember them?), a stock advisory service that was acquired by Lycos back when they thought there was some good reason for this acquisition. I received this offer because about two years ago, I posted something on the Raging Bull forum under the alias "searchenginepundit." (I also posted from time to time under the alias "beccaweinberg," a revelation which may lead some to ply me with Freudian analysis... anyway, that's another story.) Two years later, Lycos decides: "hey, we've got all those email addresses from a bunch of folks who never agreed to receive anything, so let's send 'em stuff anyway!"

Looks like Lycos isn't shy about "leveraging" any email address of any person who has ever used any Lycos service in the past. Now I'm sure to some pundit from the advertising industry, and to the folks in marketing operations at Lycos, the act of rounding up email addresses associated with registrations for various services - no matter what type of permission was granted at the time of signing up - and then sending them "special offers," seems perfectly normal, sane, and logical. Or at the very least, a minor faux pas that nonetheless ought to be indulged by anyone "who lives in the real world."

But is it that simple? Isn't two years of radio silence from the hoarder of user data a pretty good indication that there is no longer any kind of implied relationship? When you register for one thing and give your email only for the purpose of customer care (such as receiving your lost password), are you automatically agreeing to receive special offers from other divisions of the company? Well, of course not!

A quick look at Lycos' verbose "privacy policy" statement confirms that the policy contains enough booby-traps to catch even careful users. But in other cases, there really aren't any loopholes if you opt out correctly; in such cases, the policy is simply being violated. In sum, the disturbing trend with corporate abuse of the opt-in principle can be summed up as follows: "We have a detailed privacy policy, and where it isn't quite complicated enough to induce users to accidentally opt in, we're prepared to move to Plan B: ignore the policy altogether."

The new Lycos policy statement tells users that they may opt out of any and all mailings by revisiting their membership information page and unchecking appropriate boxes. Or, by leaving them unchecked at "first collection." So I went to the page. It appears that my email subscription list contains "none" out of 40 or so possible items I could have opted into. And yet, they sent me stuff anyway. Is the "disclosure" of these privacy policies to independent nonprofit Trust.e worth the paper it's printed on? Evidently not.

They do have a sense of humor, though. The "privacy policy" gives a few tips on safe Internet surfing, such as this for example:

"10. What you can do to better protect yourself on the Internet?

"Know the risks.

"Meeting new people in an online community (chat room, forum, newsgroup, message board, Web page, etc.) is one of the best things about the Internet, but you should always be careful about disclosing personal information such as an actual name, member name, email address, and so on. This information may be collected and used by others within the online community to send unsolicited email messages from other parties, outside the Lycos Network. Some of the messages you receive may be useful to you, but some may not."

Thanks for the heads-up. I'll be sure to be careful.

Now, Lycos, do you understand why I usually register with aliases like Becca Weinberg, with a fake phone number, outdated home address, and dormant email address? Imagine what might happen to me if I let myself begin to trust, even just once!

Posted by Andrew
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Sunday, April 20, 2003

New Traffick Article Posted: "In Defense of Dashy Domains"

In Defense of Dashy Domains
Dashed domains offer a big target for proponents of a purer web marketing. But beyond any real or perceived benefits, dashed domains are worth pondering for what they can reveal about marketing via search.

Posted by Cory
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